Thursday, January 13, 2011
Today in Literary History - James Joyce Dies in Zuerich, Switzerland
On January 13, 1941, the great Irish novelist, James Joyce died in Zuerich, Switzerland at the age of fifty-eight from peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer. Joyce’s principle biographer, Richard Ellmann, wrote that Joyce had “reached his life’s nadir” at the time of his death. His daughter had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, his son’s marriage and career had fallen apart, his eyesight was particularly bad, and he was suffering due to the ongoing battles over his books, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
On January 11th, Joyce underwent surgery for the perforation, and at first, he seemed much improved. However, on the following day, he relapsed, and despite several transfusions, he soon fell into a coma. He awoke at 2:00 am on January 13th and asked a nurse to call his wife, Nora and his son, George, before losing consciousness yet again. He died a mere fifteen minutes later, before his family could arrive at his bedside to say their goodbyes.
Of all his difficulties, the one that seemed most troubling to Joyce was his daughter, Lucia’s mental illness. In an effort to find help for Lucia, Joyce had taken her from doctor to doctor and from clinic to clinic, and he refused to accept the grim prognosis for her recovery the doctors gave him. In the mid-1930s, Joyce had even consulted the renowned Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who had attempted to treat Lucia with no success. In fact, Jung diagnosed Lucia and her father as two people “heading to the bottom of a river,” though Lucia, Jung said, was falling, while Joyce was diving. Joyce’s personality style, said Jung, was “definitely schizophrenic,” though Jung felt Joyce had transformed and sublimated it through his genius for writing. “In any other time of the past,” Jung said, “Joyce’s work would never have reached the printer, but in our blessed twentieth century it is a message, though not yet understood.” And like his work or not, it is clear today that Joyce was definitely a genius and a man ahead of his time.
Two years before his death, in 1939, Joyce concluded his seventeen years of work on Finnegans Wake, which was written primarily in Paris. In the book, he was jocular and sometimes even lighthearted regarding Lucia’s illness, but in private, it tortured him. Even during the times when Lucia showed improvement, Joyce doubted that she would ever be able to live life “out in the world.” Everything besides his work on Finnegans Wake, he said, nearly killed him:
"Having written Ulysses about the day, I wanted to write this book about the night...Since 1922 my book has been a greater reality for me than reality. Everything gives way to it. Everything outside the book has been an insuperable difficulty: the least realities, such as shaving myself in the morning, for example."
James Joyce is buried in Fluntern Cemetery, very near the Zuerich Tiergarten (Zoo). Even though two senior Irish diplomats were in Switzerland at the time of Joyce’s death and funeral, neither attended services for the author, and the Irish government subsequently rejected Nora Joyce’s request to repatriate her husband’s remains. Nora, whom Joyce had married in London in 1931 after many years together, survived Joyce by ten years. She is now buried by his side in Zuerich as is their son, George, who died in 1976. Richard Ellmann wrote that when the arrangements for Joyce’s funeral were being made, a Catholic priest tried to convince Nora that there should be a funeral mass, to which Nora replied, “I couldn’t do that to him.” The renowned Swiss tenor, Max Meili sang Addio terra, addio cielo from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the funeral service.
Away from literature, Ellmann writes, Joyce lived life in a manner that was “erratic and provisional,” but his books show him as “one of life’s celebrants, in bad circumstances cracking good jokes, foisting upon ennuis and miseries his comic vision.”